Earlier this month the Nevada Supreme Court heard arguments on procedural matters in a case that seeks to have declared unconstitutional the state’s practice of handing out gifts to businesses that agree to operate in Nevada and create jobs.
The plaintiff in the case is Michael Little, owner of a company that converts recycled landscape trimmings into biomass, a renewable energy source. The suit grew out of the fact the Governor’s Office of Economic Development (GOED) gave $1.2 million to one of his competitors, SolarCity, a company that installs solar panels. That was part of a $10 million Catalyst Fund.
The suit claims the gift to SolarCity violates the Gift Clause of the state Constitution, which prohibits the state donating or loaning money to any company. Little is represented by Center for Justice and Constitutional Litigation (CJCL), a division of the Nevada Policy Research Institute.
Joseph Becker, chief legal officer and director of the CJCL, said he is pleased the state Supreme Court agreed to hear arguments on whether Little has “standing” as a taxpayer to pursue the lawsuit.
“It seemed to me the court was very sympathetic to our plight, and that is that absent taxpayer standing it’s very difficult to keep a state government within its constitutional constraints,” Becker said in a recent interview. “Forty-six states have at least some form of taxpayer standing, three explicitly have rejected taxpayer standing, and one state, up until now, has no taxpayer standing jurisprudence whatsoever, according to legal scholars, and that state, of course, is the very one in which we find ourselves. Given the nature of the questions, I’m optimistic that they see this as problem and they’re willing to address it.”
A ruling giving Little standing as a taxpayer would send the case back to district court to be heard on its merits.
Becker explained that CJCL is in the business of trying to set precedent that serves the public interest, and having the Supreme Court say a taxpayer has standing to challenge unconstitutional tax expenditures is very important.
The Supreme Court hearing gave Becker the chance to point out to the court the fact that the voters have on three occasions rejected attempts to amend the state Constitution and remove the Gift Clause — in 1992, 1996 and again in 2000 by wide majorities.
Gift clauses started appearing in state constitutions in the mid-1800s after state governments in the East invested heavily in private companies building infrastructure such as canals and railroads that went bust. The states of Indiana, Illinois and Michigan were bankrupted as a result.
The Nevada Constitution specifically states: “The State shall not donate or loan money, or its credit, subscribe to or be, interested in the Stock of any company, association, or corporation, except corporations formed for educational or charitable purposes.”
“We needed a vote of the people to change the Constitution, which never happened, but now suddenly its OK for the state to do something that up until now, even they insisted, would take a constitutional amendment,” Becker said bemusedly. “I tried to make that point and I think did,” noting the justices asked for citations about the balloting.
Becker also noted the very timeliness of the case in light of the fact SolarCity, after drawing $400,000 of its allocated $1.2 million, announced just before Christmas that it is ceasing new operations in Nevada and laying off 550 employees after the state Public Utilities Commission drastically increased the connection fees for solar panel owners and slashed the amount paid for solar power uploaded to the grid.
Becker noted his organization has been arguing all along that the reason these Gift Clause provisions were put in Western constitutions is because of the experience of those bankrupted Eastern states, where taxpayers found themselves having to bail out government spending boondoggles that benefited some private party that was somehow friendly with the people in office.
“I pointed out to the court that this is exactly the kind of problem that this provision was intended to prevent and the voters didn’t want that changed,” the attorney said. “It is the court’s job to protect against the tyranny of the majority, but here we’re protecting against the power elite.”
A version of this column appears this week in the Battle Born Media newspapers — The Ely Times, the Mesquite Local News, the Mineral County Independent-News, the Eureka Sentinel, the Lincoln County Record and the Sparks Tribune — and the Elko Daily Free Press.